A last, for now, critical piece in service of preparing to resume the Lord of the Rings re-read, this time a skim through Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber. Most of the pieces are personal reminsciences or discussions of Tolkien's influence on the field, and thus there's not much for me to say about them. I was a little surprised, though, at how many people talked about being enthralled from the first page, considering how slow I'm finding the opening now. I wonder if this is a time-and-place thing? (I first read LotR so long ago that I can't remember what I felt when I successfully read it; also, it was during the phase when I would read anything. I do recall trying it a few years before and being bored, but I was somewhere around five years old, so this is hardly substantial literary criticism.)
I'd already read Ursula K. Le Guin's essay "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings," and I skipped Orson Scott Card's essay and the discussion with the Hildebrandts. Thus, all I have to discuss here is Michael Swanwick's "A Changeling Returns."
Swanwick's essay discusses reading LotR to his son after a long time away from the text. Swanwick experienced a different book: instead of a great adventure story, it was "a tale in which everyone is in the process of losing everything they hold most dear." He sees two responses to these potential losses:
Those who try to seize the power to ward off change are corrupted by despair . . . . Those who are willing to pay for all they have . . . and then to surrender their authority over what remains, ultimately gain the satisfaction of knowing that the world has a future worth passing on to their children. But it has no place for them anymore.
I think this is quite supportable by the text, and makes the political implications of the work more complex than the purely small-c conservative view than is often attributed to it.
Swanwick then turns to Frodo. In a bit that made me snort, he says,
Frodo travels through MIddle-earth like some kind of God-sent integrity test. The Wise, if they were truly so, upon seeing that he had come to visit, would shriek, "Oh, no! It's that fucking hobbit! I'm not in!" and slam the door in his face.
Except that Frodo fails the test, making him quite the peculiar protagonist. Swanwick argues that the usual bildungsroman arc is fulfilled by Sam as the externalization of all that's good in Frodo, while the path of failure is similarly fulfilled by Gollum. (I think I've heard that other people have also argued that Frodo, Sam, and Gollum make up a single character, but am not sure who at the moment.) According to Swanwick, this leaves Frodo "free to follow a third path, one that is, though Tolkien labored hard to disguise the fact, essentially mystic." It starts with his receipt of the Fisher King's wound at the hand of the Nazgul, and ends at the Cracks of Doom:
Frodo has failed the test. But no fair-minded person can believe he ever had a chance of passing it. Rather, he has been, as an engineer would put it, "tested to destruction." And, because he is judged for all his life rather than the weakness of an instant, he is spared from the damnation he has seemingly brought upon himself. Gollum, marked by all as a tool of Fate from the very beginning, steps in to save him.
Frodo is given mercy, rather than victory. This, too, marks the insight of age.
I suspect I will find this a useful way of looking at this section, which in recent years has come to puzzle me slightly. (As a side note, this makes me realize belatedly that Shippey talks much less about the Cracks of Doom and Gollum than I might have found useful.)
Finally, Swanwick calls the last line "the most heartbreaking line in all of modern fantasy", and reports that his nine-year-old son found it very upsetting as well. Like being enraptured from page one, this reaction surprised me. Again, my initial reaction is lost to me, but I think now I regard the ending as bittersweet rather than heartbreaking. Yes, Frodo and Sam are separated, but both are finding comfort in their separate paths. I admit, however, that this is colored by having read the Appendices and believing that Sam and Frodo will see each other again—I realize this is not textual, and Frodo may not live as long as Sam even in the West, but I formed this belief so long ago that I doubt I could dislodge it even if I wanted to.